Me Before You, based on the acclaimed novel by Jojo Moyes (who adapts her own screenplay), is a romantic dramedy that tells the story of Lou Clark, a quirky young English girl from a working class family, hired by the wealthy parents of the cold, bitter quadriplegic Will Traynor to be his companion. It’s not the kind of thing that really needs to be summed up beyond specific circumstances; if you’ve seen the trailer, you pretty much know what you’re walking into, which is less a fault of the movie and more the double-edged sword of the genre this movie is working in.
Romance in film is a hard play to run because, more than any other genre, you’re fighting inevitability. There’s a million different ways you can put the world in danger and save it, a million ways you can terrorize a group of characters. There are only a few ways to show two people falling in love. It rightfully endures because, as a species, the idea that we can find solace and inspiration in each other is powerful and beautiful. But it’s been done so often that it’s harder and harder to believe in it just because you say it’s true. So when you tell a romance, you have to have something worthwhile to say with it, and you have to have something special to help you say it.
It helps that Moyes’ script is well-paced, genuinely funny, and occasionally clever, giving the secondary actors lots to work with even if they don’t have much to do. Thea Sharrock doesn’t fare quite as well in the director’s seat; her first feature outing (she previously helmed episodes of Call the Midwife) lacks consistent visual panache and leans a bit too much on the most obvious execution of any given story beat. Still, it’s forgivable in light of what Sharrock does well. She’s got a fantastic knack for comic timing, giving the film a zip missing from the films churned out by the Nicholas Sparks Christian-puppy-and-bittersweet-heterosexual-rainbow mill every February. She also gets strong performances from her entire cast, imbuing the film with the sense of an active world around the main characters. And every now and then, she’ll completely dominate a key visual beat. Lou and Will’s first kiss, for instance, is a searing moment, staged so perfectly it’ll send your heart into your throat for its sheer execution as much as your attachment to the characters it involves.
It’s the leads that make Me Before You shine, however. Emilia Clarke is the real deal, folks. Given a character that runs completely counter to the kind of iron-willed badass she’s now associated with, Clarke throws herself into it like a fat kid on the World’s Largest Cookie. After Khaleesi and (to a far lesser extent) Sarah Connor, this is a damn near Jerry Maguire-tier turn; her Lou Clark is an awkward, artsy goon who doesn’t so much “arrive” somewhere as “clambor in.” She wears odd, ridiculous outfits, makes terrible jokes (her interview for the Will Traynor job is such a glorious trainwreck in this department, her hiring somehow makes ironic sense), and very rarely keeps her feelings to herself. This is the sort of character that could go sour quick in the wrong hands, but Clarke’s got a winning charm and a hilariously expressive face that carries her through. Several moments in this film get sold on the strength of a single ridiculous look on Clarke.
Claflin (The Hunger Games series) gets the tougher job in many respects, not just because he’s limited to speech and eye movements for most of the film, but because Will is a complete dick to Lou when they first meet. Even knowing what he’s lost and what he’s been through, he makes it hard to feel much sympathy for him, and the glimpses we get of the life he had before his accident suggests he was always kind of a douche. He has to win the audience back over the way he wins Lou over, and he pulls it off, completely legitimizing their chemistry in the process.
Once Lou gets Will’s defenses down—a gradual transition that Claflin charts and sells beautifully—they have an undeniable rapport together. They both have a comparable taste for sarcasm, trade wits at speeds that should put Nora Ephron’s ghost to rest, and push each other into new, strange territories. The film successfully creates a sense that these two people are changing each other in vital, natural ways, and does it without giving into easy sentimentality.
Given what we know of where he was before his accident, where he is now, and what he’s looking at in the future, it’s no real shock that Will wants to kill himself. He’s already tried it at least once, and now he wants to go to a special clinic in Switzerland to be euthanized. He makes a deal with his parents: six months, and then he’s done. Once Lou finds this out, the bulk of the movie is her trying to secretly convince him to change his mind by packing as much life into his clock as possible. Classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl setup: Guy is terminally depressed after a tragedy, the girl uses her indomitable spirit to change his perspective, they fall in love.
In the end, however, he still chooses euthanasia, arguing that not only is his life downhill from here, but that the thought of holding Lou back is even more painful. Now, depending on how you feel about a person’s right to die, your feelings may range between “Wow, what a powerful, painful choice he’s made” and “What a self-absorbed prick, why is this movie canonizing him?” The effect of the viewer’s personal politics is mitigated by smartly grounding the beat in character and giving voice to the various opinions surrounding the choice, though I can’t help but wonder if some people are so against the right to die that their opinion of the film will be tarnished by how it ends.
As far as I’m personally concerned, there’s a brilliant inversion at play here. The smartest thing Moyes and Sharrock do here is give Lou all the appearances of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl—wacky clothing, clumsy behavior, sunny demeanor—while passing its ultimate function over to the deeply un-pixie-like Will, having him teach her about “living life to the fullest” through his lament of the life he once lived. It creates a fascinating dynamic on paper, which Clarke and Claflin bring to electric life on screen.
If you’re into romances, there’s plenty here to make it worth your while, regardless of how you ultimately feel about its finish. Me Before You passes my test: something worthwhile to say, something special to help say it. If nothing else, it marks Emilia Clarke as a legit performer to watch out for.
Me Before You is now playing in theaters.
Chuck Winters is a film school graduate who never learned how to bitterly hate half of everything he watches. He lives in noted cultural hotspot Suburban Long Island, where he is working on his first novel.